Who’s Afraid of HarperCollins?

By Melanie Yarbrough

It’s true, I haven’t been the biggest supporter of e-books since the whole revolution began. I understand the benefits: Going green, lower upfront costs for fledgling publishing companies, fewer wasted resources, fewer copies returned to publishing companies, fewer copies destroyed and wasted once returned, unique opportunities for unknown and hardworking writers. The list is long and convincing.

I am also a romantic when it comes to books, a steadfast supporter of the hard copy, of the scribbled notes in the margin, of the cursive notes in the front flap of how the book was acquired. I love bookstores and libraries: The aesthetic, the smell, the possibilities of discovery. When I know what I want, I am grateful for digital catalogs, Google searches, and library networks online. When I’m in a writing rut, and all I want is to be inspired by someone doing what I want to do with my life, I want to go into the basement of the Cambridge Public Library and not surface until I have a stack of books to leverage my way out of creative purgatory.

In short: While I feel there is a place for e-books, I feel more strongly that there is a necessity for a place – a physical place – to gather our written thoughts and histories. It seems the conversation is focused on how e-books are revolutionizing the publishing industry, how they are changing and fitting into the economics of publishing, and whose money it is affecting. But in an economic and political climate where funding for the arts and education are dangerously lacking, it is important to look at what else is being affected by the dawning of the age of the Kindle.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t so short. The question remains: How are the growing divides that are being caused by the growth of e-readers going to affect the future of how we ingest books? With controversy surrounding HarperCollins’ announcement to lease e-books for 26 readers for a fee, it would seem that the new machine isn’t rolling along as it should.

E-books must not be treated as an investment but as a subscription, which turns them into major cost-cows for an institution that doesn’t thrive on the size of its budget. So what are the possible solutions? While boycotting e-books is a great way to make a stand against being so-called “bullied” by big publishing companies and their business models, there might be other options. Most libraries keep subscription-based magazines and newspapers on hand, with the most recent issue available for reading in-house and back issues available to check out. Why not create a similar situation for e-books? Submit to a subscription-based lease system for newly released books that is comparable to purchasing several hard covers, then once a book is released in paperback, loosen the subscription or offer unlimited copies to libraries who invested in the subscription.

Things are changing, and without compromise and experimentation, it may not be for the better.

For more information on the boycott against HarperCollins check out boycottharpercollins.com.

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One thought on “Who’s Afraid of HarperCollins?

  1. Yeah, it’ll be really interesting to compare the effects of e-books on physical book market to the effects of ipod/mp3s on CDs. I think books have two things going for them that you touch on here:

    1. The artifact of a book is more important to people than the artifact of a CD. I can’t help but see the plastic jewel case as the real death of CDs. Those POS cases that all looked the same and broke within 24 hours of purchasing the CD are just not collectible. No one ever cared as much about the physical CD as they did about the content. In fact, the CD as a music artifact was actively distracting, since once it had a teeny scratch, the entire thing was useless. Thus, eliminating the headache and expense of the plastic medium was a win-win. Books, on the other hand, are important to people. They smell nice, they feel nice, they look nice on a shelf. Readers like to write in them. People *care* about books as an artifact much like people *care* about vinyl records which have seen a spike in interest among consumers over the last decade.

    2. The places where books are sold are more important to people than the places where CDs are (were?) sold. Have you been to an FYE lately? Yeah, me neither. And good riddance, right? CD stores were always stuffy and un-inviting with matte-black employee uniforms and terrible soundtracks. Loitering was explicitly prohibited because us young whipper-snappers might slip a Boyz 2 Men CD in our backpacks. Small and big-box book stores, on the other hand, have casual employee attire, include coffee shops and lounges, and are generally more inviting. You can go to the book store to buy things or to just hang out, and when you just hang out you usually buy stuff, too. Providing an actual place for people to shop for books is a much more sustainable business model than having basically a media hot dog stand like Record Town. (This is also why I think famous stores like Amoeba Music in San Fran/LA are still around, they have more of a community place vibe than a music store. And they sell good vinyl. And they supply music to the niche markets).
    It’s hard to say if this will always keep book stores in business or if it will just prolong the inevitability of the digitization of everything. Which, I don’t know, I still really like books and bookstores, so maybe I’m projecting…

    Now that I think about it, this does not apply to textbooks. Textbooks are shitty, and will/should definitely be replaced be e-readers ASAP.

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